Your headache isn't terrible. But it's definitely there. Should you wait to see if it goes away?

"The most important thing to do is catch the headache early, before it gets worse," says Allen A. Towfigh, MD, medical director of New York Neurology & Sleep Medicine.

There are many ways to get relief. Start with these six steps.

1. Get the Dose Right

If you have a tension headache, it's often possible to stop it with medicines that don't need a prescription. Those drugs include:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen

Follow the instructions on the label. If you take your medicine too often, you can get headaches that are more intense. Doctors call these "rebound headaches." They can happen when you take the same painkiller more than 2-3 times per week.

Take the smallest dose that still gives you relief. That can help you avoid rebound headaches and cut back on side effects. Follow the dosing instructions on the label.

Check on caffeine. It's in some headache drugs. Studies show that when aspirin and acetaminophen are combined with caffeine, they're better at relieving tension headaches and migraine pain. But if caffeine is one of your migraine or headache triggers, you'll need to avoid it.

2. Use a Compress

Both ice and heat can help with pain. Many people with tension headaches prefer warmth. People who have migraines often choose cold. Try one, and if it doesn't help, try the other.

Cold compress: Put it on your forehead and temples.

Ice pack: Wrap it in a thin towel to protect your skin. Keep it on for 15 minutes, then off for 15. Repeat.

Heating pad: Using it on your shoulders can help relax your muscles, Towfigh says. It's best to place it on your neck or on the back of your head. Never leave it on when you sleep.

Hot pack or hot water bottle: Be careful that it's not too hot. That can trigger muscle spasms and cause burns.

3. Take a Warm Bath or Shower

Let the heat from the water work to relieve muscle tension. It may make your headache shorter and milder, Towfigh says.

Baths and showers are both fine to try. Just make sure the water isn't too hot.

4. Treat Yourself to a Massage

A gentle one can ease your muscle tension, Towfigh says.

You can massage your own temples and the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Gentle stretching might also help. Or use a foam roller to loosen up tight areas.

5. Take a Break

Stop what you're doing. Relax and get some rest. Lie down in a dark, quiet room and take a nap, if you can. The sleep can ease pain, says Lawrence Newman, MD, president of the American Headache Society.

Find a way to relax that works for you. You can try deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Or go for a walk. Or just lie still and listen to some quiet music.

6. Don’t Get Too Thirsty or Hungry

Dehydration and hunger can trigger headaches. Drink plenty of fluids and eat regularly.

Talk to your doctor if you still need more relief or if your headache gets worse. She can check on you and offer more ways to beat the pain.

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